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C - 7 : Harassing Venice on the Cheap

When flying from Vienna to Venice, book an F seat on the right hand side of the plane. About 10 minutes before lnding, look out of the window and you will see this:

Palmanova, a giant Venetian Renaissnce Fortress

When i spotted it for the first time I thought “what the heck ...!” Why would the Republic of Venice built such a large fortress at the border to Austria with whom it had no quarrels? Coz it was not the Austrian border. It was the border to the Ottoman Empire.

Maximum extension of the Ottoman Empire

After the Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453, their forces continued to push into the Balkans. The Hungarian border straight to the north was well defended but resistance further west was weak. After the Serbs were defeated, the doors towards Croatia, Slovenia and Northern Italy were open. Dalmatia was raided as early as 1467 - a mere 14 years after the fall of Constantinople. From then on, Ottoman raids into Venetian lands (Friul) were took place in 1469, 1473, 1476, 1477, 1478, 1480, 1497 and 1499.

Akinci Corps - the Turkish light cavallerie

The invaders were the Akinci Corps, the Ottoman Empire’s light cavallerie. In typical steppe tactics, they conducted deep raids behind enemy lines which lasted from a few days to maximum three weeks. The attacking Akinci were not numerous - never more than 10’000 horse men, most of the time less. The Venetian defenders had no chance though. Their pikemen (infantry) were too slow and the medieval Knights too heavy. The un-armourd Akinci could run circles around them and defeat them from a safe distance with their bows and arrows. Each Akinci was a well trained marksman who could fire his bow from his galoping horse. All of them carried around 100 arrows per men. Compared to building a fleet, this was a cheap way to attack and destabilize the Venetian hinterland

Attacking Akinci - idealised painting from the 19th century

Having no effective defence, the Venetian Forces and the population of Froul had no other option than to withdraw behind the protective walls of their towns. Lacking siege equipment, the Akinci could not take towns by force. But the invaders could freely roam, plunder and enslave anybody they met outside the townwalls. There were thousands of Friulians who were sold into slavery in the Balkn’s slave markets (we have seen this asymmetric tactics already with the pirates in Ulcinj - blog D - 27).

Today’s province of Friuli with the Alps to the North and East

In its entire history, Friul was never a border province. Its population was fully Romanised. Its distinctive Friulian language survives to today and sits somewhere between main Italian and the Swiss Romantsch (spoken in Grison in Switzerland’s easternmost Canton). The province was thus fully unprepared for these attacks - people fled to Venice and safer parts of Northern Italy. Friul became an impoverished land-scape despite its fertile plains and rolling hills, ample water supply and hot summers (it is today one of Italy’s upcoming wine regions - you will taste it on the 17th of August!).

Every time Venice and the Ottoman Empire went to war (there were seven wars in total), there was a risk that a large Turkish Army would invade the hinterland of Venice and attack the town from the land side. If the Ottomans were able to march twice 100’000 soldiers to Vienna (in 1529 and in 1683), they could also reach Venice. Vienna was further away from Istanbul than Venice!

Udine’s modernised fortifications

During the war for Cyprus in 1571 , it was thus decided to modernise the medieval fortifications of Udine (Friul’s capital), to build a string of gun forts in the hills of the eastern border and to create an entirely new super-fortress halfway between Udine and the sea. Palmanuova, the world’s first Renaissance Fortified Town, could house large cavallerie formations to counterattack any Turkish advance. In 1583, construction started. It took a full 30 years to complete the 4 miles long walls. The sunken bastions were massive, state of the art and could withstand the Ottoman’s feard siege artillery. But Palmanuova was also a drag on Venice’s manpower. Let’s not forget that 1/2 of its male population (25’000 able men) served on the Galleys of its Fleet

Plan of Palmanova, early 17th century

The Ottoman Empire was always a land power. Whilst its fleet was massive, it was mostly subject to the military planing for land campaigns. The Ottoman’s strategy to harass Venice on its northern border thus makes perfect sense. With all the plunder and the captured slaves, these campains and raids were self-financing. Maintaining a fleet was an expensive drag on the budget. Wars are all horrible but they follow a certain financial logic.

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